Sustainable development means creating resilient systems

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to listen to an inspiring and entertaining talk by Dennis Meadows, one of the leading thinkers on sustainability and author of the seminal 1972 book “The Limits of Growth”. In the course of the “Future Lectures” at Vienna’s new University of Economics and Busines he talked about “Strategies for Personal and Organization Success in the Age that Meets Limits”.

According to Meadows, we have to change how we understand the term sustainable development and approach it with honesty and optimism. In 1972, when “The Limits of Growth” was published, there were two future paths for society: overshoot and collapse or sustainable development. It was clear that sustainable development required adaptation but our efforts to adapt became startegies that failed.

One main reason for this is that there are delays in all steps of the adaptation cycle. While adaptation usually works pretty well for everyday problems, these delays make it difficult to deal with long-term problems like climate change and sustainable development. For instance, it takes time to see the changes in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration or environmental damages after CO2 emissions have changed. So, these delays result in less accuracy and more overshoot when it comes to sustainable development.

Another problem with sustainable development are common assumptions by political leaders, the media, etc. that it would be possible that the rich can keep what they have while the poor rise to the standards of the rich and that this will be achieved by keeping our current system (markets and politics), simply by developing new technologies that decouple GDP growth from energy and resource use. This belief stems from the Brundtland Commission’s definition of sustainability that should be amended to create resilient systems.

The Brundtland Commission…

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”


…and the Meadows Definition:

“Sustainable development is development that prepares the present system to deal with shocks and chaos in ways that minimally compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

So, Meadows’ definition of sustainable development aims at increasing resilience even if you have to reduce efficiency. In this regard, resilience is the ability to continue providing essential functions after receiving a shock while efficiency is simply the amount of output that you get from a unit of input.

In a model where a system (individual, business, home, farm, city, nation) is defined by essential inputs and essential outputs, resilience then means that if one of these flows stops (e.g. Russian gas or personal income), there’s no problem for the system. So, increasing resilience means increasing the time that you can cope with delays or to decrease potential damage. The only problem is that there is a trade-off between efficiency and resilience.

To find personal and organizational strategies to address these issues, we should first remember that it’s difficult to deal with universal problems like climate change (solving them requires everyone to agree and act; costs here and now give benefits there and later), that there are no simple solutions (we tend to focus on technical solutions, not thinking about social and cultural factors) and that we have to look far ahead and therfore sometimes have to go through a situation that is worse to get to a better situation in the long run (as it is the case with the banking system where we would have to go through bank failures).

On a personal level, this would first require us to remember that everybody is making mistakes in predicting the future and that I cannot solve the problems alone instead of becoming too pessimistic about the future given all the information on the dangers of climate change and other problems. So, a main personal strategy would be to simply do your share and truly design resilience into your lifestyle while universities should focus on teaching skills instead of just giving information. Here’s a complete list of Meadows’ personal and organizational (university) strategies:

Personal strategies:

  • Remember that everyone makes mistakes in predicting the future.
  • Accept that you cannot solve the whole problem.
  • Your moral obligation is to do your share.
  • Reduce your boundaries of action.
  • Create personal space.
  • Design resilience into your lifestyle.
  • Value your friends.

University strategies:

  • Remember that some of the data we teach is wrong now and much will become obsolete soon.
  • The goal of teaching is not to give information but to teach skills (interaction with real world problems).
  • Teach about paradigms.
  • Students’ ethics are an appropriate and important topic for classrooms.
  • Expand the boundaries of professional responsibility.
  • Teach about resilience: measuring, increasing.
  • Recognize that lifelong friendships are one of the most important products of university life.

Finally, there were another three important take-aways from the discussion following Meadows’ talk: First of all, Meadows reminded us that sustainability is neither a static state nor a destination but it’s how you make a trip. Second, instead of telling others what they need or should do, you should create opportunities for them to learn, e.g. by giving people the opportunity to interact with systems with short feedback delays. And finally, I liked Meadows’ personal attitude after decades of dealing with the issue of sustainable development: “I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic, I am realistic. I hope for the best and prepare for the worst.”

Posted on October 28, 2013 in Sustainability

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About the Author

Andreas Lindinger is a Vienna-based business consultant, sustainability expert and urban thinker passionate about livable cities, sustainable transportation, renewable energy and civic engagement. Andreas offers a transdisciplinary business, finance and sustainability background, industry expertise in energy, mobility and environmental consulting and broad international experience gained in Vienna, Vancouver, Berlin and Dublin. Make sure to also check out and to follow @lindinger on Twitter.

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